There is a centuries-long conversation on how best to achieve transformational change, taken up here in a dialogue between authors with insight and ideas for today’s political revolutionaries.
Almost 150 years ago, the Farmers Alliance organized two million people in the United States by rallying an army of unpaid lecturers–forty thousand of them–and starting a thousand newspapers. Let’s sit with this for a moment. With communications methods that we would now call “antiquated” or limited, the Farmers Alliance organized more than three percent of the US population. Clearly, there is still much we can learn from looking at that movement and classic works like Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978).
In fact, the Farmers Alliance, and the Populist movement more broadly, came incredibly close to attaining the critical 3.5 percent population threshold that Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found to presage revolutionary change in their landmark study of nonviolent resistance. Chenoweth and Stephan’s study focuses on “three specific, intense, and extreme forms of resistance:1 anti-regime, anti-occupation, and secession campaigns,” but there are lessons for people interested in transformational change in modern democracies and republics.
Through analysis of 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006, in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2016), Chenoweth and Stephan seek to explain “two related phenomena: why nonviolent resistance often succeeds relative to violent resistance, and under what conditions, nonviolent resistance succeeds or fails.”2 Furthermore, what they consider most striking “is that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.”3 Their research has been foundational to mobilizations like Extinction Rebellion.
Building on these findings, Mark and Paul Engler’s This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (2016) explores momentum-driven movements that stretch from the Salt March to the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and from Otpor to Occupy. Momentum is the name for an approach to social change that seeks to give progressive organizers the tools and frameworks to build massive, decentralized movements. Like Chenoweth and Stephan, they find that strategic nonviolence serves as a powerful tool for social change. And we round out this chorus of voices with adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017), which brings a personal reflection on a life in activism into the conversation. Although coming from a very different perspective and approach, in Emergent Strategy, she addresses several of the most challenging questions at the heart of transformational change: “What we are all really asking … is how do we, who know the world needs to change, begin to practice being different? How do we have to be for justice to truly be transformative?”
Read together, these four texts bring us into this long-standing conversation on transformational movement building and help us to understand what works, what doesn’t, and, above all, what we should be doing today if we want to see real change.
What Doesn’t Work?
So, what do these authors say definitely does not work? Let’s start with Goodwyn:
Unfortunately, history does not support the notion that mass protest movements develop because of hard times. Depressed economies or exploitive arrangements of power and privilege may produce lean years or even lean lifetimes for millions of people, but the historical evidence is conclusive that they do not produce mass political insurgency. The simple fact of the matter is that, in ways that affect mind and body, times have been “hard” for most humans throughout human history and for most of that period people have not been in rebellion.4
That’s our lesson number one: civil resistance doesn’t happen just because times are hard.
Chenoweth and Stephan, meanwhile, assert that
nonviolent campaigns fail to achieve their objectives when they are unable to overcome the challenge of participation, when they fail to recruit a robust, diverse, and broad-based membership that can erode the power base of the adversary and maintain resilience in the face of repression.5
That’s lesson number two: while you need mass participation, the quality of mass participation–robust, diverse, broad-based–can be more important than the quantity.
Adrienne marie brown further suggests that “[u]prisings and resistance and mass movement require a tolerance of messiness, a tolerance of many, many paths being walked on at once.”6
This, then, is our lesson number three: don’t shy away from messiness and complexity in organization and movement building.
What Does Work
Now, let’s dig into what these authors say does work to create lasting transformational change, so we are all better prepared. In This Is a Nonviolent Uprising, Engler and Engler comment:
What if periods of mass, spontaneous uprising are neither as spontaneous nor as unbridled as they might at first appear? What if the fits of social change that burst into our headlines like flash storms can actually be forecast? What if one can read the clouds and understand their signs? Or what if, in fact, it is possible to influence the weather? … Can versions of civil resistance be used to confront the challenges of climate change, runaway economic inequality, racial injustice, and the corporate hijacking of government?
Now that is an intriguing question.
Returning to Goodwyn, the Populist revolt had four stages of democratic movement building. These stages, in fact, resonate across the historical examples shared by Chenoweth and Stephan–Burma, Iran, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories–as well as the stories from India, Serbia, and the US shared by the Englers.
Goodwyn breaks down these stages for us:
(1) the creation of an autonomous institution where new interpretations can materialize that run counter to those of prevailing authority – a development which, for the sake of simplicity, we may describe as “movement forming;”
(2) the creation of a tactical means to attract masses of people – i.e. “movement recruiting;”
(3) the achievement of a heretofore culturally unsanctioned level of social analysis – ”movement educating;” and
(4) the creation of an institutional means whereby the new ideas, shared now by the rank and file of the mass movement, can be expressed in an autonomous political way – “movement politicized.”8
These four movement stages also have some preconditions: individual self-respect, collective self-confidence, and an agenda. Together these form the foundational building blocks for transformational change: a “movement culture.” Goodwyn describes this as “a spirit of egalitarian hope, expressed in the actions of two million beings – not in the prose of a platform, however creative, and not, ultimately, even in the third party, but in a self-generated culture of collective dignity and individual longing.”9
So as to come up with a unified theory of transformational change, let us first explore the elements of movement culture that these authors uncover in their historical analyses and personal experiences, then we will draw them together and end with a challenge to would-be changemakers.
The Englers draw our focus to how “Gandhi struggled throughout his life with creating a hybrid” that generated a movement culture built from this mix of economic cooperatives, bold platforms, and political education. They elaborate:
He (Gandhi) was famous for his campaigns of widespread civil disobedience, or satyagraha. But he combined these with an ongoing “constructive program,” through which local communities could build autonomy, as well as with efforts to build the grassroots reach of the Indian National Congress, which became the country’s leading independence organization.10
A strikingly similar mix was created by the Populists in their summer encampments, wagon trains, and sub-alliance (smaller than a county) meetings, which Goodwyn describes as “unsteepled places of worship.”11 And “movement culture” was at the center of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s too, when nightly mass meetings in Black churches served as its beating heart.
Movement culture is created when people need each other to win their own freedom, and they are willing to engage in collective sacrifice and actions that reinforce their solidarity. Brown has another word for this: “emergent strategy: strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions, is to me–the potential scale of transformation that could come from movements intentionally practicing this adaptive, relational way of being, on our own and with others.”12
Notably, as evident in these authors’ discussions, movement culture can also generate strategic and tactical innovation when campaigns have broad-scale diversity and breadth of participants. “Because tactical innovation occurs on the fringes of a movement,” Chenoweth and Stephan contend, “campaigns with larger numbers of participants, and consequently wider margins, are more likely to produce tactical innovations.”13 They are careful to say that participation can take the form of both concentrated and dispersed (stay-aways, sit-ins, occupations, economic boycotts) civil resistance. They continue:
Higher levels of participation contribute to a number of mechanisms necessary for success, including enhanced resilience, higher probabilities of tactical innovation, expanded civic disruption (thereby raising the costs to the regime of maintaining the status quo), and loyalty shifts involving the opponent’s erstwhile supporters, including members of the security forces.14
Furthermore, if participants are the body, then training and political education are the lifeblood of movement culture. As the Englers explain about the civil society movement in Serbia’s return to democracy, “[t]he influx of new participants presented a challenge for Otpor.”15 They ask:
… How would it immerse large numbers of people in its organizational culture and have them understand the guidelines that allowed its decentralized teams to be effective? The organization’s answer was mass training… In a very short amount of time, people could go from being total outsiders to becoming team leaders in their towns. And the training process was exponential. New chapters were outfitted with manuals and toolkits enabling them to host their own trainings.16
The transmission of movement culture is, above all else, relational. It is cultivated in the collective experience of nonviolent direct action, economic cooperation against the grain of capitalism, political education, and training. These require intentional relationship building and the forging of bonds based on collective self-interest.
Goodwyn describes how the Populists organized two million people through a distributed organizing program of “lecturers” and “lecturing schools” to propagate political education and cooperative economics. He details how the Populist Alliance created a movement culture in over forty thousand sub-alliances across rural America in the course of building its structure of economic cooperation. As he explains it:
That idea–at the very heart of the movement culture–was a profoundly simple one: the Populists believed they could work together to be free individually. In their institutions of self-help, Populists developed and acted upon a crucial democratic insight: to be encouraged to surmount rigid cultural inheritances and to act with autonomy and self-confidence, individual people need the psychological support of other people. The people need to “see themselves” experimenting in new democratic forms.17
The Englers similarly identify this same strange and combustive alchemy of movement culture in the momentum-driven mobilizations they studied. “Time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and illuminate injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see three elements–disruption, sacrifice, and escalation–combining in forceful ways.”18
A Unified Theory of Transformational Change
Movement culture is the force that holds together a unified theory of transformational change – the long-term agenda framework. It is what we need to realize broad-scale transformation.
To achieve transformational change, first we need to leverage this movement culture to change the landscape within which we operate. This is the work of both the civil resistance campaigns that Chenoweth and Stephan describe as well as the Englers’ momentum- driven mobilizations. Since we are fighting on terrain defined by the corporate-conservative radical Right, we need to first transform our landscape through this movement culture and how it leads to movement moments, electoral change, and shifting the dominant narrative. This requires escalating power through organized people, money, and ideas.
Power is the meeting place between mass protest and people’s organizations, between changing the landscape and making structural transformations of economies and societies. To win lasting, radical social change that shifts power from corporations and the wealthy to people and the public starts with what may feel like incremental change – but this is only if you are not truly paying close enough attention. In reality, these are stepping stones toward increasingly structural reforms.
A word of caution: we’re not alone here in trying to do this. The radical Right is also trying to win its own form of transformational change and has its own movement culture. Incremental changes – often imperceptible stepping stones – have proven tremendously effective in advancing the right-wing agenda. This is how the radical Right came to prominence in the United States over the last several decades, and how they are now working to undermine democracies around the world. According to Chenoweth and Stephan, it makes sense the radical Right would take aim at democracy, as open societies have built-in mechanisms for reform. And, in many parts of the world, the Right is winning and democracy is being beaten into retreat.
When we win structural victories, however, we institutionalize the change we seek. There is a dynamic relationship between changing the landscape, winning structural reforms and building power: a combination of all three are necessary to create lasting, structural transformations. The climax of struggle is not the end of the mobilization or civil resistance campaign – it is the structural transfer of power that can institutionalize new democratic and economic relationships.
Goodwyn gets this spot on when he writes:
If the central task of democratic reform involves finding a way to oppose the received hierarchical culture with a newly created democratic culture, and if, as the Alliance experience reveals, progress toward this culminating climax necessarily must build upon prior stages of political and organizational evolution that have the effect of altering the political perspectives of millions of people, then democratic movements, to be successful, clearly require a high order of sequential achievement.19
It’s not helpful to think of a sharp division of labor between the movements and organizations that struggle for transformational change, and those trying to institutionalize structural reforms. They may follow different “rules for radicals” to achieve varied goals, but as demonstrated by the historical examples shared by these authors, effective movement organizations can do – and have done – both. The Englers, for instance, lift up movement organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Otpor as “hybrid organizations” with the ability to code-switch as they respond to the needs of the political moment. Chenoweth and Stephan point to formations such as the hay’at i madhabi, neighborhood religious associations that were linked to mosques (12,000 in Tehran alone), as critical spaces where the social forces in the anti-regime campaign forged their national alliance in Iran.
The Path Forward
This brings us back to the big challenge in front of us here in the United States: addressing the root causes of racial capitalism and forging a winning alliance of forces that can innovate and win structural transformation.
Goodwyn zeroes in on the critical urgency of this:
[T]he American tradition of white supremacy cast a forbidding shadow over the prospect of uniting black and white tenants, sharecroppers, and smallholders into an enduring political force across the South. … In an era of transcendent white racism, the curbing of “vicious corporate monopoly” did not carry for black farmers the ring of salvation it had for white agrarians. It was the whiteness of corporate monopoly – and the whiteness of those who wanted to trim the power of the monopolists – that worried Negroes. Both sets of white antagonists lived by the values of the American caste system … Before the black man could worry about economic injustice, he had to worry about survival.20
In America, this extends to our movement building as well – people are molded by the contours of race, and how peoples’ organizations institutionalize the leadership of women, people of color, trans people and others facing oppression. Goodwyn further captures both the success and failures of Populist multiracial movements:
Black lecturers who ranged over the South organizing state and local Alliances did not enter Southern towns behind fluttering flags and brass bands. They attempted to organize slowly and patiently, seeking out the natural leaders in rural black communities and building from there. … Nevertheless, white supremacy hung over the organization with a brooding presence that ultimately proved suffocating. The reason was simple: white supremacy prevented black farmers from performing the kinds of collective public acts essential to the creation of an authentic movement culture.21
In Emergent Strategy, brown also points to the need for small incremental change and the critical need to address race in our struggles for change. She reflects on fractals in nature as a way to propose how we can move forward in 2021 for transformational change. She says, evoking the way these natural patterns unfold, that “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system.”22 In other words, if we, as organizers, are intentional about building multiracial, urban–rural and intersectional movements, then this should show up in all of the relationships and spaces where we are present. She continues with the aspirational call: “I would call our work to change the world ‘science fictional behavior’ – being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.”23
Goodwyn, although looking at the past, lands in a similar place. He describes how
in their struggle to build their cooperative commonwealth, in their “joint notes of the brotherhood,” in their mass encampments, their rallies, their wagon trains, their meals for thousands, the people of Populism saw themselves. … In the world they created, they fulfilled the democratic promise in the only way it can be fulfilled – by people acting in democratic ways in their daily lives.24
For those seeking revolutionary change, these authors focus our attention on the critical importance of movement culture and the people’s institutions that help to foster it between and through the “moment of the whirlwind.”25 Heterogeneous movements are more likely to innovate and succeed in winning critically important structural changes that will ultimately remake society, but they are not simply called into existence. When movement organizations realize the radical implications of a long-term agenda, then strategic alignment between social blocs becomes possible, and a heterogeneous movement may be born. Movement culture that directly confronts structural racism and other forms of structural oppression, which otherwise would limit the strength of these efforts, is a precondition for movements that seek to dismantle racial capitalism. As these authors have shown, strategic political education, deep and intensive training, intentional relationship building, and captivating campaigns are the crucibles of movement culture. These voices from the past are calling us to greatness if we choose to listen. Let’s get to it.
James Mumm is an irrepressible organizer and aspiring writer. For the past three decades James has worked as an organizer in Chicago, the Bronx, and nationally, investing in people-powered change with People’s Action, Greenpeace USA, and local organizations. As a student of the game, James reads and writes about books that illuminate the path forward for transformational change. This essay is based on a previous version first published in Social Policy, Volume 49, Number 4 (Winter 2019).
(Title photo of the Elk statue on Main Street, downtown Portland, engulfed in federally deployed tear gas, by Jeff Schwilk, Orniphoto)
This essay first appeared in the Power issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, available here!
Engler, Mark, and Paul Engler, This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. New York: Bold Type Books, 2016.
brown, adrienne m. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017.
Goodwyn, Lawrence. The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Abridged 1976 ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
1 Chenoweth, Erica, and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 13.
2 Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 6.
3 Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 7.
4 brown, adrienne m., Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 163.
5 Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 11.
6 brown, Emergent Strategy, 119.
7 Engler, M., & Engler, P, This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016), 27.
8 Goodwyn, Lawrence, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, Abridged 1976 ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), xviii.
9 Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, 295.
10 Engler and Engler, This Is an Uprising, 63.
11 Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, 296.
12 brown, Emergent Strategy, 1–2.
13 Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 56.
14 Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, 11.
15 Engler and Engler, This Is an Uprising, 75.
16 Engler and Engler, This Is an Uprising, 76–77.
17 Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, 295.
18 Engler and Engler, This Is an Uprising, 145.
19 Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, xvii.
20 Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, 100.
21 Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, 122–123.
22 brown, Emergent Strategy, 52.
23 brown, Emergent Strategy, 15.
24 Goodwyn, The Populist Moment, 296.
25 Engler and Engler, This Is an Uprising, 54.